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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Death Threat

The faith of Easy Rawlins

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There’snever a scarcity of problems for people like me,” proclaims private investigator Easy Rawlins in Walter Mosley’s latest novel, Blonde Faith (Little, Brown), the 10th in a series of Easy’s adventures. By “people like me,” Easy might mean black men in 20th-century America. But, given Easy’s dramatic personality change in this story, the proclamation bears rereading.

It’s 1967 in Los Angeles. Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin have replaced Sam Cooke on the radio, and Easy Rawlins is dying of a broken heart. Out of jealousy, he has banished his love, the beautiful, longsuffering Bonnie Shay, from his life.

The war in Vietnam has eclipsed the Summer of Love, but the news touches Easy about as deeply as a cartoon strip. More than a year has passed since he’s heard from Bonnie. He embarks on one of the deadliest, least-rewarding detective missions of his long, wild career, just to take his mind off the loss of his beloved Bonnie. He starts drinking again.

So who are these people like Easy? Death-fixated, for one: He fends off suicidal impulses by deciding, with the ingenuity that distinguishes his creator, that death is the dialectical force of life, the constant threat that makes the human animal draw breath. He resigns himself. He meets a down-and-out drunk who vows to sober up and says, “What difference would it make if he failed? We all failed in the end.” Anguished: Every episode in Blonde Faith is viewed through the dark glass of Bonnie’s perceived betrayal. Watching his daughter doing homework with a friend temporarily without a school, Easy says, “I tried not to think about how Bonnie would have taken care of all that…” Less prone to altercation: Since Little Scarlet—set during the Watts riots—two novels ago, the amount of physical violence in which Easy directly engages has dropped off dramatically. In Blonde Faith, he points a pistol at a pimp to free a prostitute, and fires a BB gun to provoke police action against an enemy. Most of the violence in Blonde Faith takes place in Easy’s head.

Searching a missing acquaintance’s domicile, he encounters three men in soldiers’ uniforms. His first thought is to shoot them. Once he learns of their shady operations, he regrets his restraint: “I would kill Sammy Sansoam to pay for every death that cut at me. I’d hack that shit-eating grin off his face.”

Introducing this strange, new Easy Rawlins, Mosley’s style is loose and conversational. Then, halfway through Blonde Faith, Easy realizes that the men in uniform are a threat to his family. On a dime, the narration becomes clipped and sparse, as in Rawlins novels of old. Rawlins moves his family to a friend’s house, acquiring a steely drive. He goes on a date and has energetic sex with multiple partners. Here is the resilient man of action we know and love.

As Easy’s access to power increases, his awareness of racism heightens. To Easy, the Vietnam War is a distant drone, but slavery is still a fresh wound. He notices himself donning the accent of his Southern youth to fool authority figures and street characters alike. When he speaks defiantly to one of the soldiers, using an exquisite mixture of curse words and elegant vocabulary, he is as outrageously funny as his wickedly candid sidekick, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander. Maddeningly, he notices his racist enemies sprinkling their threats with black conversational slang.

The book’s twin plots, one of which involves locating a disappeared Mouse, would be thrilling on their own. But they are essentially background noise to the sad arias of loss that Easy sings on every page of this heartbreaking novel. In considering a new love interest, Easy observes, “[She] was that perpetual Black Woman and I was the forever child.”

For all the lives he has saved and all the justice he has brought to his world, Easy cannot see what his lovers, friends, family and millions of fans all see: a strong, intelligent father. As he brings our beloved protagonist to his knees, Walter Mosley takes the greatest risk of his writing career: turning the greatest black hero in American fiction into a tragic figure.
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